Here are the architecture-minded video games to play this winter

Tis The Season

Here are the architecture-minded video games to play this winter

Although Control leans heavily into orderly Brutalism, certain sections literally spiral into Inception-like dreamscapes. (Jonathan Hilburg/Courtesy Remedy Entertainment)

We here at AN recognize that this will be a tough winter for many of our readers. With the coronavirus pandemic still in high gear, travel is restricted, typical winter festivities have been canceled, and it’s likely that the safest thing one can do is just stay home and weather the cold (hence the focus of the 2020 gift guide).

To help our readers get through a difficult stretch capping a difficult year, AN has compiled a list of video games for everyone from practicing architects looking to flex their modeling muscle to design aficionados who would appreciate deep cut references. Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t make the cut for myriad reasons, but AN will have a separate commentary piece available in the coming weeks.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S, Nintendo Switch (kind of)

2019’s Control is the perfect game for anyone who’s ever wanted to shoot their way through the Met Breuer (RIP). Set within a fictional government agency dedicated to containing dangerous paranormal objects of power, developer Remedy pulled out all the stops to realize the monolithic Manhattan office tower the bureau calls home.

From the street, Remedy has appropriated the AT&T Long Lines Building, the windowless Tribeca tower known to house an NSA monitoring hub to house the Federal Bureau of Control. The Brutalist interiors (complemented by a lack of modern technology, for plot reasons, leading to Mad Men-esque set dressing) further help drive home a sense of Cold War-era paranoia and oppressive bureaucracy.

The designers certainly did their homework: Coffered concrete ceilings and irregular windows recall Marcel Breuer’s original home for the Whitney Museum of American Art, while exposed board-formed concrete and multistory spaces for reflection, lit by soft, meditative light, were copied directly from Tadao Ando’s oeuvre. Carlo Scarpa’s work was used as a reference when designing the staircases that traverse the bureau’s different levels, and even the monumental mailroom, held aloft by pillars of pneumatic tubes, brings to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Headquarters.

If you’re working from home and have a rendering rig set up this is also the perfect opportunity to flex your graphics card’s muscle. Control is one of the few games optimized for real-time ray tracing, meaning that players with the horsepower available can appreciate high-quality, accurate atmospheric lighting, shadows, and reflections, which the game employs to great effect throughout.

Platform: Microsoft Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, Playstation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S, Nintendo Switch

Yes, Microsoft’s Minecraft is old hat by now, and if you have a child, you’re definitely familiar with the 2011 block building game. So why include it again?

Minecraft is an entire industry, and the core game is still being supported and going strong, with new features and blocks being added regularly. But the biggest update in recent memory has to be the December 8 addition of real-time ray tracing to the Bedrock version of the game. Now, the sun, lava, torches, and any and all other sources of illumination will accurately emit light, which is then scattered, diffused, and reflected by surrounding blocks. So if you don’t feel like firing up V-Ray or your rendering software of choice, Minecraft might actually not be such a wild choice.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X

If you don’t have a full workstation set up and would rather play something closer to a Zen meditation on city building than a paranormal third-person shooter, Townscaper is likely up your alley. Developer Oskar Stålberg describes his project as “more of a toy than a game,” and the generative program is deceptively simple.

Set in an endless ocean, players can push and pull on irregularly-shaped parcels to raise them from the sea and create layered towns and cities atop floating platforms. Even if you’re not an architect or don’t care about investing too much time in a $6 game, it’s possible to build complex megastructures even though Townscaper is still in early access. Randomized flourishes and colors lend realism to raising your cities that other rigid, grid-based city planning games miss out on; think more Venice and less New York.

Cities: Skylines
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Android, Linux

On the other hand, if one wanted to play a city building game that could last them the rest of their lives, Cities: Skylines would be it. Create your own megacities and micromanage the transportation systems to maximize efficiency, helping shuttle your residents around by bus, trolley, high-speed rail, helicopter, and every other conceivable mode of mass transportation.

Developer Colossal Order has been dedicated to the game since its launch in 2015, as has its massive fanbase. At the time of writing, there have been 12 expansions with more in the pipeline, covering everything from building green cities to enhancing industrial areas.

There’s also a major opportunity for architects champing at the bit to integrate their own content. Thanks to the game’s robust modding system, PC players can create, texture, and integrate any assets they might want to add to the game. In fact, if one has the time, they could easily recreate entire real-life cities. The game has a cult following among city planners and NUMTOTs, and Stockholm (where Colossal Order is headquartered) even used Cities: Skylines to help plot out the city’s new transportation system.

If you’re still on the fence, Cities Skylines frequently goes on sale, sometimes as low as $2, and oftentimes even for free.

Microsoft Flight Simulator
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S

A plane flying above baltimore in a videogame
Flying through Baltimore in the rain (Courtesy Microsoft)

What is left to be said about Microsoft Flight Simulator that hasn’t already been covered in Kevin Rogan’s review? Yes, the game is an excellent way to explore the world from the comfort of your desk, and yes, the cloud computing technology used to build out the photorealistic cityscapes is already being leveraged by defense contractors. Look past that, and you’ll find both a next-generation tech demo and urban explorer tool rolled into one:

“This process is less akin to a cartographer meticulously preparing a map than an automated factory churning out commodities. A slew of data and raw material inputs (point cloud data, satellite photos, etc.) go in, technological wizardry is applied, and finished objects (fake buildings to populate a virtual planet) emerge on the other side. The sheer scope of Blackshark’s project makes this inevitable; having human workers determine and build structures and their design elements directly is too costly and time-consuming. Flight Simulator 2020 is not about accuracy; it’s about instilling awe at the ability to approximate the planet in its entirety quickly and, thanks to the infallible logic that is often imputed to AI, mostly without complaint.

But why go to all this trouble in the first place? Doesn’t this seem awfully Promethean for a video game? The development team’s own answers point beyond the game as a finished product, even as the team itself remains cryptic: Jorg Neumann, head of the Flight Simulator franchise, notes anything can be done ‘once you have the entire earth.’ Asobo head programmer David Dedeine has proposed that the technology behind the game can ‘democratize tourism,’ making it accessible from home. Outside of Microsoft, Blackshark’s usual clients are developers of autonomous cars—so it’s easy to imagine that Flight Simulator’s engine and data will doubtlessly be introduced in this field very soon.”

Just be warned, PC gamers: Despite the lack of real-time ray tracing, Microsoft Flight Simulator is the most resource-intensive game on the list due to its heavy memory demands. Real-world fidelity doesn’t come without a price.

Tiny Towns

This entry is a bit of a cop-out, but we would be remiss if we didn’t include at least one real-life, physical board game for those of you stuck at home with family members or roommates looking to join in. Tiny Towns is one of the rare physical games that’s easy to learn and difficult to master, as players take the role of a mayor looking to build up a new town in the wilderness.

Each “mayor” sets out with their own development objectives (i.e. scoring more points for building churches instead of housing, or vice versa) and needs to figure out how to efficiently build a town with connected access across a four-by-four square grid. Every building laid and connected awards more points, but resources are required to build each, representing the cost of materials and food required to keep laborers going. Games typically last about half-an-hour to an hour, making it a perfect city building exercise for those who don’t want to set aside six hours of playtime with famiily and friends.